What If Political Parties Stood behind Their Bozos?

Published in The Tyee | May 20, 2013 | Circulation: 1 million unique monthly readers

David-Clippings

The bewildering fact that Rob Ford remains Mayor of Toronto — in spite of his current crack-smoking video allegations, not to mention regularly insulting gays, calling for homeless lynchings, or insisting that killed cyclists had it coming — could be considered either the best, or worst, argument for more closely vetting candidates before they’re even allowed to hit the hustings.

Ford has proven a genius for getting himself into trouble of mind-boggling variety.

Every time his name pops up in headlines, heads hit desks it despondency, bemoaning the state of today’s electoral politics: He should have been nipped in the bud!

Then again, Ford’s mess-ups prove him all too human, precisely, perhaps, why so many voters root for him. And although many of those cheerleaders are likely the hordes of entitled, angry white suburban men that form Ford’s base, some liken it to a more universal yearning: the desire to cheer for an escaped, rampaging bull in the slaughterhouse.

During the just completed B.C. election three of the four major parties cut loose candidates they worried might embarrass their campaigns, but in so doing created new headlines. One party stuck with their team no matter what controversies arose: the BC Liberals.

Which raises a few questions. How important is vetting potential candidates? What is the current state of that art? And, are some correct in saying that in our quest to prevent disastrous Ford-style “bozo eruptions” on the campaign trail, we may have gone too far?

Scarcely had the writ dropped when the NDP had to fire acandidate over racist comments online about First Nations. Another week, the Conservatives lost four of their own, and announced they would be re-vetting all of their ridings (with the help, to quote leader John Cummins widely-mocked phrase, of “The Google”). Meanwhile, the third-place Greens were threatened with a human rights complaint from a hopeful they’d rejected over a bad credit rating.

Even the avowedly “positive” NDP released a list sarcastically decrying a dozen BC Liberals “whose past and present behaviour should not disqualify them” from running. The list included North Vancouver-Seymour MLA Jane Thornthwaite’s failed roadside breathalizer test; Maple Ridge-Mission MLA Marc Dalton’s statement that homosexuality is “improper and high-risk behaviour”; and Richmond-Steveston MLA John Yap’s cabinet resignation after spending public money for “quick wins” in so-called ethnic communities.

But all three MLAs were re-elected. Clearly the BC Liberals must have done something right if they handily won re-election without having to toss a single candidate in the process. One day after her party’s victory, Clark applauded the election of many candidates new to politics alongside Liberal stalwarts, calling her team “new, fresh eyes to govern British Columbia.”

“I think a lot of people would say it’s time for renewal in the province,” she told reporters. “I knew that in order to win this election, we had to present a renewed team of respected, competent, capable people.”

‘If you don’t, the opponent’s party will’

So how did the BC Liberals retain their controversial candidates when they came under the opposition’s microscope? Though the party did not return requests for an interview on the subject (neither did the NDP or Conservatives), the world of advertising offers insight.

“You saw the Conservatives get slaughtered,” explains Lindsay Meredith, a marketing professor at Simon Fraser University. “You saw the NDP get nailed.”

Meredith looks at the question from a branding perspective: companies try to position their product in an attractive light. Equally, a firm hopes to affect how consumers view the competition. This is likely why Dix never recovered after the Liberals’ defined him as untrustworthy from the get-go.

One of the key changes today is the extreme speed and reach of online social media such as Twitter and Facebook. After suffering so many casualties on the election battlefield, all parties are watching a changing terrain in which past baggage can be more amplified than ever before.

“Watching other people’s demise and learning from it is going to spark questions among all parties,” Meredith says. “It’s going to bring a whole new agenda to riding associations’ vetting of candidates.

“Rest assured, you will see careful vetting. If you don’t, the opponent’s party will. People will start doing more homework to find bad stuff about you. Saying to a potential candidate, ‘Have you been a good boy and kept your nose clean?’ ain’t going to cut it. We’re still learning about this thing and how it works — how important it is, and how it can turn around and bite you in the butt. It’s a case where learning can be painful.”

Conservatives missed the red flags

It’s generally understood that “bozo eruptions” — those tragicomic moments when individuals’ gaffes, tweets, past indiscretions and other baggage fall under the spotlight — can severely hurt a party’s image. The BC Conservatives are a case in point.

Ex-BC Conservative member Dean Skoreyko knows something about both candidate vetting, and what it feels like to get the boot. He vetted many candidates running for office, until he was fired as the party’s top communications official in 2009 after he called former Peace River South Liberal MLA Blair Lekstrom “a rat” in a Tyee interview about the Harmonized Sales Tax (HST). The party even revoked his membership.

“You live and learn,” he told The Tyee. “That kind of stuff happens during campaigns. It can be pretty nasty.

“(As a vetter) I did the best I could — I made some phone calls and did a lot of online searching; you do whatever your opponent is going to do.”

It takes a special type of mind to dig up dirt on your own team, says Skoreyko, one who is not a “hardcore partisan” and can objectively scan a person’s record. Often, lawyers are involved in the task, he added.

But it doesn’t take a massive budget to screen would-be candidates, Skoreyko adds, taking a jab at his former leader, Cummins.

“Anyone with half a brain and who’s politically astute can see red flags,” he says. “When it comes up in the campaign, you’ll know what the damage is; do we back him, or bail on him now? You’re ready to act when it comes — if it comes.”

The outspoken ex-Conservative blogger says Cummins should have spent funds early to hire a team of researchers to comb through the candidates — and most importantly, to nominate them well in advance of the campaign, not at the last minute as some were chosen.

“He didn’t do due diligence, didn’t get organized, and when confronted on it he made these rash decisions,” Skoreyko said. “One drunk driving and three fired within a week? That’s just poor research.”

Asked on election night about the candidates he fired during the campaign — credited with helping demolish the BC Conservatives’ appeal to disaffected Liberal voters — Cummins repeated his insistence that the campaign’s mistakes were the result of a small budget.

“We vetted them as best we could,” Cummins told reporters in his Langley headquarters. “Take a look at our opposition — ask them about their vetting process.

“These are parties that have been around a long, long time, and they’ve had trouble with their candidates. When we had a problem, we dealt with it; when they had a problem, they looked the other way…. I’m absolutely stunned at some (Liberals) that have been successful.”

‘Culture of cowardice’

But while many credit “bozo eruptions” for Cummins’ unraveling, some argue that parties may have gone too far in their efforts.

Stuart Parker is an activist with the Vancouver chapter of Fair Vote Canada, and former leader of the Green Party of BC. Parker is a veteran of B.C.’s history of electoral reform pushes, including two unsuccessful referenda on proportional representation in the past decade.

“There’s such a culture of cowardice now,” he muses. Parker suggests that in some cases, parties might win tough ridings if only they had the courage to “stand behind their bozos,” as he puts it. While some gaffes or crimes are obviously beyond the electoral pale, how much a bozo eruption will hurt a campaign also depends on how the party reacts.

“You know what else hurts the parties?” Parker asks rhetorically. “Running people as boring as whale shit, where everyone has to get on the coat tails of their leaders.”

Parker traces the modern political obsession with candidate vetting to two elder Canadian statesmen: Jean Chrétien and Preston Manning, who both consolidated control over election candidates in the early 1990s. Chrétien purged the federal Liberals of an anti-abortion faction, Liberals for Life, and Manning weeded out far-right extremists in order to make his Reform Party more palatable to the mainstream.

But like with many power-grabs that may initially hold merit, Parker argues that what the two leaders did was cement in a culture of autocracy into the political landscape at a time when legislation was also changing to centralize party control.

Despite being a fixture on the left — joining the NDP after losing the Green Party of BC leadership over a decade ago, and since being elected to Vancouver’s Coalition of Progressive Electors (COPE) executive — Parker credits conservative leaders like Toronto Mayor Rob Ford with appealing to voter’s disdain for spin. He argues that Ford is popular, despite near-constant bozo eruptions, because citizens are tired of the “90-second sound loop” of politicians today. In today’s world, step out of line and a politician has scarcely 72-hours to apologize — or be tossed under the bus.

If Ford has anything in common with the victor in B.C.’s latest provincial election, it’s a demeanour of supreme self-confidence. “Christy Clark is the kind of person who can just brazen it out,” Parker chuckles. “The main thing that conditions whether people think you’ve done something wrong is if you act like you’ve done something wrong. Christy Clark, to her credit — and even when has done something wrong — does not act like she has.”

Can you imagine, Parker asks, a politician like former NDP Member of Parliament Svend Robinson existing today? Robinson was jailed for Clayoquot Sound civil disobedience under his own party’s provincial rule; shot by a police rubber bullet during Quebec City’s Free Trade Area of the Americas protests; outspoken on Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories — and eventually resigned his seat after admitting to stealing an expensive ring.

In today’s hyper-vetting political world, Robinson would likely have been vetted out before ever being nominated. And yet, he was highly popular amongst voters.

“The mechanisms already exist to deal with this democratically,” he says. “Picking the wrong candidate and having to replace them is something that nomination meetings and riding associations were built to handle.”

The solution should not be imposed from the top down, Parker argues, but rather in the local riding association that nominated the candidate in question. Empowering riding associations to choose candidates they trust and are familiar with would solve the ever-narrowing pool of potential candidates. As Green Party leader, when faced with a candidate with a controversial drug record, Parker encouraged a local committee to remove them, at the grassroots level.

He believes a cultural shift is needed in all parties — and the political survival of scandal-prone Rob Ford or redlight-running Christy Clark suggests that voters are hungry for a break from the damage-control PR machinery dominating today’s parties.

Although the latest crack-smoking allegations are the straw that might break the camels back, Parker says he views Rob Ford’s initial election success as “like cheering for one of those animals that gets loose in the slaughterhouse.” On other words, his unpredictability was what people liked about Ford.

“If someone actually tried saying what they thought and not apologizing for 72 hours — if anybody gets through that wall,” says Parker, “I actually think they might get rewarded by voters at that point.”

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